FAQs and Facts About The Port Royal Experiment

It was in the midst of the American Civil War when South Carolina was finally given consideration of their need to get freed from economic and political crises. They have come to a situation that was justifiably caused by the whites who have been enslaving African American workers. At the same time, they’re stipped off of their human rights and indefinitely labored without wages. What seemed like endless suffering for them concluded when the Union Army sailed to Port Royal in the year 1861. The act of the soldiers was the birth of a program initiated by a collaboration from the Northerners and the American Government, called the Port Royal Experiment.

What was the purpose of the Port Royal Experiment?


The primary purpose of conducting the Port Royal Experiment in South Carolina was purely out of humanitarian concerns towards African American slaves. It was also ultimately reinforced due to societal necessities and backed by military accountability.

When the Union and some of the private charity institutions in Northern Carolina took the initiative to fight, they won the freedom for the African American slaves. And, it was there in Port Royal and the surrounding South Carolina Sea Islands where former bondservants first tended soils as free and compensated workers.

This effort to prepare the former slaves to become a part of the society as free citizens were only the start of America’s Reconstruction.

What school was opened as a part of the Port Royal Experiment?

Upon the request of Union General Thomas W. Sherman, teachers from the North were called to train ex-slaves in Southern  California. In April of 1862, the Port Royal Relief Committee of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, directly sent Laura Matilda Towne as a response to the General’s call. She, along with other volunteers consisting of 53 missionaries, teachers, doctors, and ministers, left New York and boarded the steamship “Atlantic” bound for Port Royal. There, they offered their services by teaching, practicing medicine, and helping in the distribution of clothing and other goods.

With allotted funds on hand, Towne spearheaded the establishment of one of the largest missionary schools in St. Helena Island by September of the same year— they called it the Penn School.

It was then the beginning of the Port Royal Experiment, where the plan is to put up not only schools but as well as hospitals down South and let the free men purchase their own lands and run them for a living.

Recent Facts:
In 1950, Penn School was changed to Penn Center. It was also the time when trained midwives opened the first daycare center for African Americans. After this, they opened a Teen Canteen for local teenagers and a community health care clinic.

How did the “Freedmen” acquire their own lands?

President Abraham Lincoln issued land redistribution policies that addressed the dilemmas of the freed people in purchasing lands to their names.

By 1863, around 16,000 African American families were allowed to buy their divided shares from up to nearly 40,000 acres of abandoned Confederate plantations. They were charged to pay $1.25 per acre for property entitlement.

Local banks and also Northerners took their liberty in buying a few acres of those lands. However, even though some people from the North owned a piece of property from the distributed lands, some of them hired African American farmers to work as tenants in a certain area. This means that even though some of them weren’t able to purchase lands of their own, they still get to live and earn among their co-African American tenants, where President Lincoln originally granted them of their home.

What did the Emancipation Proclamation do and did not do?

“All persons held as slaves shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

President Abraham Lincoln aimed to free all men by the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. No matter how it sounds all-encompassing, it still has its limits.

To trace back for a while, Lincoln has been advocating the freedom of slaves since 1849. When he finally got to a position, he remained convinced of his conviction to save all slaves from years of pain and agony. Because of his strong will, he worked his way to win over the hearts of the legislators.

When the Union won the battle at Antietam in September of 1862, Lincoln grabbed the opportunity to issue a preliminary decree in consequence of the rebellion. The proclamation declared, “all persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” This means that the Emancipation Proclamation grants freedom to the slaves who are living in those rebellious states. Furthermore, it does not cover the emancipation of the slaves living in states under the control of the Union. The decree also includes the compensation of those enslaved, where there were no allied states who grabbed the offer.

While the proclamation allowed African American soldiers to serve for the nation, their freedom to vote was not yet given due consideration.

How did the Port Royal Experiment end?

As the course of the experiment was moving forward, the Union still found hindrances upon the victory of freeing slaves in all parts of the nation.

By taking a step from the fight of their right to receive compensation for hard labor, it dawned on many Northerners that there may be another way to allow progress for the African American race, and that is by way of giving them the right to vote. Maybe not all Northerners considered this as a possibility, but those who did were undoubtedly threatened. As some of them remain conservative in changing the ways of the past, they can’t seem to accept the act of having a big chunk of confiscated lands given to former slaves.

And so, just when the experiment was starting to have momentum, it almost as instantly lost its drive to push even further. It was 1865, the year President Abraham Lincoln died, and along with him was the cause of the experiment. President Andrew Johnson, the next person in line after Lincoln, tried as much as he can to bury the purpose of the Port Royal Experiment. It became his goal to restore all confiscated lands to their previous owners before they were sold to the freedmen.

The summer of 1865 was the beginning of President Johnson’s process of stripping away the rights of African Americans to their properties. Some southerners who flew from their lands at the commencement of the experiment came back to the Sea Islands. Although, some of them did not attempt to do so anymore.

There were thousands of African American landowners back then who continued to own and farm their plantations even until the 20th Century. The freedmen of Port Royal remained active with various political pursuits even after the death of Abraham Lincoln. They had to fight against the vote of South Carolina’s Constitutional Convention to disenfranchise African American voters. By battling this, the Reconstruction model created from the Port Royal Experiment did not end with the termination of the experiment itself.

What was the main purpose of the Freedmen’s Bureau?

On March 3, 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established by Congress to place effort on the aftermath of the Civil War badly, which affected the former slaves and all poor constituents. The first office of the Freedmen’s Bureau was in South Carolina, which was launched in Beaufort in 1865. There were many volunteers enlisted for the Port Royal Experiment and became leaders of the agency.

Its main purpose is to provide food supplies, shelter, medical aid, educational support, and even legal responsibilities, especially for those African Americans who needed house and land settlements due to having their lands abandoned or taken from them during the war.

Despite great resistance from different parts of the nation, particularly the white Southerners who strongly negate America’s Reconstruction, the bureau struggled and fought. Unfortunately, the shortage of funds prevented them from carrying out the full effect of the bureau. As they cannot impose a financial burden on the government, it was impossible for them to fully operate.

Through all the years that the Freedmen’s Bureau was in operation, they were able to serve countless lives in so many ways. It became an instrument to give way for African Americans to find their place in America.

Let’s Dig More About The Port Royal Experiment!

Know the history of The Port Royal Experiment with a study about “development and nation-building.”

  • The Port Royal Experiment: A Case Study in Development authored by Kevin Dougherty
    Check out this case study on the establishment of the Port Royal Experiment, how it affected society in the past, and the part it played in nation-building.

    “The Port Royal Experiment has ten chapters, each of which is designed to treat a particular aspect of the experience. Topics include planning considerations, philanthropic society activity, civil society, economic development, political development, and resistance.”


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